May is Asian and South Asian Heritage Month—a time to acknowledge and celebrate Asian and South Asian workers and communities in Canada. It is also a time to remember and honour the historic and ongoing activism of Asian and South Asian people in the fight for human rights and social justice.
Asian and South Asian Canadians have faced discrimination throughout Canada’s history, including outright exclusion from membership in labour unions, the denial of the right to vote or run for public office, the Head Tax, the exploitation of Chinese railway workers, the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, and the Komagata Maru incident, among others.
In 1891 the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council shamefully led the call for a ban on Chinese immigration. This demand was widely supported among white people in the early 20th century. Even organized labour excluded Asian and South Asian residents.
But Asian and South Asian community and labour activists did not let this discrimination go unchallenged. They formed their own organizations such as the Chinese Trade Workers’ Association in British Columbia and the Asian Canadian Labour Association in Ontario.
The International Woodworkers of America Union eventually took up a leadership role, fighting for equal pay for Asian millworkers and challenging inadequate bunkhouse conditions at Fraser Mills and other plants in the 1940s. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the NDP, fought for the right of Asians and South Asians to vote and would go on to apply political pressure to improve the lives and working conditions of Asians and South Asians in Canada.
Constant collective pressure led by Canadians of Asian and South Asian descent made possible recent government apologies and redress for the victims of the Chinese Head Tax, internment of people of Japanese descent, and the Komagata Maru incident. Today, Asian and South Asian activists lead labour, community, and activist organizations such as the Chinese-Canadian National Council, , the Caregivers Action Centre, the Council of Agency Serving South-Asians, and the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance. Asian and South Asian people are tightly woven into the fabric of our modern labour movement and society.
Despite progress, racism against anti-Asian and South Asian persists today. Asian and South Asians disproportionately work in a low-wage and precarious occupations. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, paranoia and hate crimes targeting Asian and South Asian communities have greatly increased. Now more than ever, we must stand united against Anti-Asian and South Asian discrimination and hatred in all its forms.
Led by our Racial Justice Committee, CUPE Ontario is mounting a campaign—Resisting White Supremacy—that calls for solidarity, promotes anti-racist education, awareness of white privilege, and seeks to combat racism experienced by racialized communities including those of Asian and South Asian Canadians. Learn more about the campaign by visiting cupe.on.ca/recognizeandresist.
This Asian and South Asian Heritage Month, let’s unite to remember the rich history of Asian and South Asian communities, contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights, and resist the rising tide of racism that threatens equity-seekers everywhere.